The image people usually associate with mindfulness is someone sitting off by themselves, shut off to the world, blissfully enjoying a mind devoid of thoughts. Not only is that not true, but it’s actually impossible.
Our minds are “thought” generating machines. You can’t shut them down. But you can develop a practice of “not believing everything you think” and put your mind it in “its place” as servant, not master.
Occasionally our thoughts are original and generated from our own thinking. However, many thoughts tend to be sound bites we’ve overheard or had drummed into us as kids. They get adopted by default. Ever get upset and found yourself on auto pilot reciting verbatim what was said in your family when you were a child? Parents experience this when they hear their parent’s words coming out of their mouths, even after they’ve vowed to never do that to their own kids. Autopilot.
When we hear something over and over, whether in our head or from others, we get programed by this repetition to trust these thoughts and accept them as true. You know how you become used to something, like a new fashion trend or a song you initially didn’t like, after you’ve been exposed to it for a while? The more we repeat a thought, the more it becomes habitual and the more it sounds reasonable. And because we hear our thoughts in a familiar voice — usually our own — we begin to blindly (or mindlessly) trust the thought. Bad idea.
“The mind is the manifestations of thought, perception, emotion, determination, memory and imagination that takes place within the brain. Mind is often used to refer especially to the thought processes of reason.”1
What mindfulness involves is the practice of observing one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations without reacting to them. By not reacting I mean we don’t automatically launch into a behavior or action as a result of hearing the thought. We pause and consider whether in that present moment the thought we are having, particularly if it is a call to action, is appropriate.
I might be driving when someone abruptly cuts me off. I feel scared and angry. I have the thought, “that guy needs to be taught a lesson.” Probably a bad idea to act on that thought, but if I have no practice in considering the merits of my thoughts, I might get carried away by emotion and just react. What’s worse is I might even blame the other driver for my actions because they “made” me feel angry and then not take responsibility for my own choice to react.
Problem is that we routinely react to thoughts without even knowing what we are doing. You have a thought about needing to get gasoline for the car and before you know it your mind boards a “train” that takes you all over town picturing all the gas stations, wondering what the price is today and if you should only get $10 worth because it’s Friday and the price will probably go down on Sunday night.
It’s like there is a drop down menu that accompanies every thought and if you engage with that thought you will be presented with a myriad of related links that lead to even more links and your entire day can be hijacked by just that one thought.
So it’s not the “thinking” that’s problematic. It’s the hijacking of our attention and time with our accompanying auto-reaction to our thoughts that have us living in our heads (our imagination) and keep us from being present to what’s currently happening in our lives.
I liken this to sitting on the bank of a river and watching the water flow. Many things are being carried down the river but we don’t usually let our visual attention follow every leaf, twig or piece of debris. That would make us dizzy in the same way following every thought leads to overwhelm and anxiety.
The practice of mindfulness helps with what we call “monkey mind.” This refers to the way monkeys chatter and move incessantly. Our mind, our thoughts, move like this, too. They never hold still!
The mind is meant to be our servant. It is supposed to respond to commands from us to think about something specific or generate ideas or solutions. Instead we have become the servant of our thoughts; jumping and reacting to every one. There is a great expression, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Thoughts, most of which are simply provided by what we hear in our environment, are simply spewed out by our brains. They are like random blips that don’t necessarily mean anything except to inform us of the nature of the inner dialogue we are constantly having with ourself.
And what is an “inner dialogue”? We all have them and, no, it doesn’t mean you have a personality disorder. Have you ever found yourself not able to get “that tune” out of your head? There are many conversations (often called “self talk”) we constantly have with ourself. If you pay attention and notice this background inner talk you’ll see it tends to be an undercurrent of negative comments incessantly badgering us. Not a very positive influence on our mood.
There are lots of good exercises on how to deal with monkey mind. Most techniques are quite doable and simply need practicing to generate a new awareness, less anxiety and less monkey mind. We will address this in an upcoming piece.